- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

WITH THE FIFTH MARINES, Iraq, March 22 (UPI) — Marines of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, raced acoss the Iraqi desert Sunday toward objectives deeper in the Iraqi heartland.

As the column moved forward Saturday, it stretched along an Iraqi highway as far as the eye could see.

Armored attack vehicles, troop carriers and trucks loaded with supplies and ammunition raced past small villages. The column stopped occasionally to search buildings and people before the Marines continued their journey.

As the Marines rolled by, they occasionally encountered clumps of people walking down the road. They waved as the Marines went by, but otherwise appeared almost unconcerned at the invasion force in their country.

The Marines pulled out of a gas and oil separation plant they captured in fighting Thursday night and Friday, handing the facility over to the British Royal 1st Irish Regiment. They also turned over more than 300 prisoners.

One Marine was killed in the fighting. The Pentagon said he was 2nd Lt. Therrel Shane Childers, 30, of Saucier, Miss.

The entire operation at the plant was conducted in the darkness before dawn; the moon was blotted out by dust and only the eerie fires left from the bombing illuminated the field.

Shortly after the battle, Marines aproached a ditch where more than 30 Iraqi bodies lay. One Iraqi in his last moments of life was questioned. All he would say was, "Why did you do this?"

Some of the Iraqis in the ditch were killed as the Marines went through trenches routing out the enemy after aircraft swooped down, bombing the artillery battery and infantry company guarding the gas-oil plant.

After the battle, the gas portion of the plant was on fire, either damaged in the fighting or set afire by the Iraqis.

As the Marines pulled out, the British troops took control of the more than 300 Iraqi prisoners to move them to a more secure area for interrogation. Among them was a lieutenant colonel who had been in charge of the Iraqi defenses at the plant.

British engineers moved in to dispose of unexploded ordnance and to check the plant for hidden explosive charges.

The Marines spent most of Saturday moving across the desert as they would on Sunday, heading deeper into the country.

At stops, troops formed tight security around their vehicles and several were detailed to search houses for weapons. The chief concern was that there might be occasional sniping, but none occurred.

Along the route at various bridges, small two-man anti-aircraft guns could be seen, abandoned like many of the homes along the way.

In the distance, occasional plumes of smoke could be seen from burning oil wells.

The lead vehicle of the column belonged to Bravo Company. On the hood was a child's toy alligator nicknamed "Crazy." The 26-ton armored amphibious vehicle, which carries troops into battle, had painted on its turret its own nickname: "The Porkchop Express."

Lt. Anthony Sousa from Maine, commander of the vehicle, quipped that he had placed a sandbag to cover the word "pork" to be politically correct in a country where pork is not eaten.

Looking down at the baggy suit he wore to protect against possible chemical or biological weapons, he said: "Oops, I kind of looked like Snoop Doggy Dog. Does anyone have any tape to flatten it down?" He then broke into an improvisational rap about crossing the Iraqi desert.

For most of the Marines in the regiment, this is their first taste of war. Many of the senior NCOs, however, had taken part in Gulf War I in 1991 and also had served in Somalia in 1993.

Younger Marines remained boisterous among themselves and full of bravado, but the older, experienced men retained a more sober mien and cautioned against overconfidence as America's force to topple Saddam Hussein moved deeper into Mesopotamia, where the prospect of resistance increased.

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